Cut the crap - Duchamp opened up modern art
December 2, 2004 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Marcel Duchamp's "readymade" Fountain has been named the World's Most Influential work of modern art, according to 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers in a survey conducted by Turner Prize sponsor Gordon's. (more inside)
posted by Ufez Jones (63 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The rest of the top ten, in links:

2. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - Pablo Picasso
3. Marilyn Diptych - Andy Warhol
4. Guernica - Pablo Picasso
5. The Red Studio - Henri Matisse
6. I Like America and America Likes Me - Joseph Beuys
7. Endless Column - Constantin Brancusi
8. One: No. 31 - Jackson Pollock
9. 100 untitled works in mill aluminium - Donald Judd
10. Reclining Figure 1929 - Henry Moore
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:40 AM on December 2, 2004

posted by solistrato at 11:45 AM on December 2, 2004

I wonder if naming a urinal the "most influential work of modern art" is as much of a joke to them as it was to Duchamp.
posted by fungible at 11:53 AM on December 2, 2004

Brian Eno pissed in it, I understand.

The urinal itself isn't the work of art. Jeesh.
posted by kenko at 11:57 AM on December 2, 2004

Thanks for all those links, Ufez. Great work.

I know it's not as elegantly simple as 'Fountain,' but the Duchamp piece that most blew my mind was "Etant donnes..." which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Best way to approximate the effect is at this page. Look at the door for a while until you can see where there's a spot to go up and put your eye next to, to look through. Then click on the door for that.

Oh yeah. If at all possible, be tripping on LSD while doing so.
posted by soyjoy at 11:57 AM on December 2, 2004

fungible, "influential" is very different from any notion of "important" or "best." Like it or not, it has been a huge influence--pretty much setting the tone of modern art for the next century.

Personally, I don't like Duchamp. He was a pretty shifty character.
posted by nixerman at 11:57 AM on December 2, 2004 Klimt? That loser Pollock gets a spot and they dis Gustav? Outrage!
posted by j.p. Hung at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2004

Duchamp but not the Large Glass? Jeez...

(this website has an absolutely fantastic animation explaining it, as well as LOTS of other great Duchamp material.)
posted by Vidiot at 12:00 PM on December 2, 2004

Ceci n'est pas un afficher.


and i don't speak french... so sorry if that isn't grammatically correct.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:04 PM on December 2, 2004

"The urinal itself isn't the work of art. Jeesh."

It absolutely is. Without it, what would you have? Not even a pot to piss in.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:11 PM on December 2, 2004

That Kasimir Malevich's Black Square (1913?) is consistently left off these lists is a crime, though I suspect its because he and Mondrian split the "founders of geometric abstraction" vote.
posted by ChasFile at 12:14 PM on December 2, 2004

The urinal itself isn't the work of art. Jeesh.

So what is? Seriously. I'm not familiar with this guy, or most art for that matter. At the risk of exposing my dumbassery, what's the deal with the pisser? Is it that it makes you think? It makes me think, but mostly I'm thinking "what am I missing?" All I see is a naked emperor.

I'm not trolling, I promise. Please educate this ignorant slob.
posted by bondcliff at 12:15 PM on December 2, 2004

great stuff, Ufez -- a funny story comes to mind here: when Hemingway's favorite bar in Key West, Sloppy Joe's, changed location in the late 1930's, Hemingway took a big marble urinal home from the old bar location as a souvenir. why? because he'd used it so often, he argued, he had paid for it many times over.
Hemingway's wife, horrified, turned the urinal into a small fountain in the Hemingway house's garden. the descendants of Hemingway's cats still lap water from the "fountain"
posted by matteo at 12:15 PM on December 2, 2004

Recontextualization of a urinal as high art completely breaks down established ideas of art. Art isn't just entertainment, but creative expression. If I pay a skilled painter to put a pretty picture on the ceiling of my chapel, it's art. It evokes certain thoughts and emotions. Well, if I pay someone to design a toilet and put it on my wall or floor, I still have certain ideas about it. Memories, associations, and maybe even emotions.
posted by mikeh at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2004

I remember an exhibit a few years ago at the Walker. It was a row of 3 or 4 mounted urinals made of red wax.

And then there's Sherrie Levine's bronze urinal:
posted by Juicylicious at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2004

The urinal itself isn't the work of art. Jeesh.

So what is?

The act of putting it on a pedestal in a museum and calling it "art." Let me concur with the "massively influential but not nescessarily all that great" conclusion with the observation that Fountain address the question of "what is art?" with all the subltety of a sledge hammer.
posted by ChasFile at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2004

This story pretty much sums it all up:

My favourite passage: "The gallery told the BBC that the work is now covered at night and that museum staff have been told that the rubbish is part of the art."

Ah, the old "Is it rubbish, or is it art?" debate. Why choose, when it can be both?

/cranky old man when it comes to most modern art
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:33 PM on December 2, 2004

Thanks, Chasfile. I guess I wasn't missing anything after all. I just know so little about art I assumed there was more to it than that.
posted by bondcliff at 12:37 PM on December 2, 2004 was influential as a statement, not as an esthetic object.

It's really important, though, to keep some important points in mind:

1) The historical context--Duchamp asserted "It's art, because I say it is" at a time when the "balance of power" around art was at a real inflection point. The real impact of taking something so profane, and proclaiming it art, was to help dramatically re-balance the relationship between the artist and audience/critic. He was fundamentally asserting that the artist gets to decide what is or isn't art, not the critics. That's basically a given, now--too much so, probably--but in the early 20th century, artists were much more subservient to their patrons and critics. This was a radical step.

2) As simple as the idea seems, he still didn't do anything as simple-minded as just take a urinal, and slap it up on a wall. It may not seem like much, but if you look at the pictures of it in place, he rotated the fixture in space and put it at eye-level, so that you're encouraged to see the object, and potentially appreciate its shape, anew. This is much like the way a great black-and-white photo of an everyday object can bring out a new beauty or esthetic quality. I don't mean to spin some fancy analysis out of nothing, but he was basically also asserting that just helping you see something differently is a legitimate, and valuable, artistic gesture. In his view, you didn't have to carve something out of raw granite, or paint something on a blank canvas, to be a real artist. This was also a radical re-definition, for the time.

Both those points are kind of "Well, duh" today, but it's really important to realize how much that's true because of Duchamp (and his contemporaries), and specifically how much that's true because of this work. You may not be thrilled about that fact, but he did it first, and aggressively broke ground on a new territory for art.

There's a great quote on the page Ufez links to: "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot." Duchamp definitely deserves to be judged differently from the many, many conceptual artists who followed him.
posted by LairBob at 12:41 PM on December 2, 2004

The act of putting it on a pedestal in a museum and calling it "art."

And in 1917. And he collapsed much of modern art initiative in one piece, before anyone got a chance to say anything about it.

Vidiot, your understandingduchamp link is great. Thanks.
posted by NewBornHippy at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2004

LairBob - That's interesting, and thank you.

So...Duchamp took a familiar form, recontextualized it to great success and acclaim, and inspired untold reams of less-skilled artists to put forth their increasingly-derivative and tiresome versions of his work.

I guess that makes him the Led Zeppelin of modern art.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:48 PM on December 2, 2004

I like Duchamp.

However, this explains a lot about why I never like the Turner Prize winners (except for Rachel Whiteread).

And how could Beuys have made the list, and Meret Oppenheim's teacup not?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:58 PM on December 2, 2004

I love that piece, soyjoy. I had been through the modern art section of the museum several times before I even knew there was something in that little room. It looks like a maintenance closet or something.
posted by deafmute at 1:09 PM on December 2, 2004

re Malevich's black square—I read about a series of paintings, I think done by a Russian, but before the 1900s, which depicted the seven days of creation. The first in the series was a black square.
posted by kenko at 1:11 PM on December 2, 2004

Yes, I get the point about recontextualization. I get what "Fountain" is about. But don't forget that Duchamp decided to use a urinal as his work of art. The man was an irascible prankster, so it's pretty obvious what he was saying. I'm just wondering if the people in the survey are saying the same thing with their vote.

BTW my favorite Duchamp derivative was where Tom Friedman (not the columnist) put a 10mm wide ball of his own shit on a stark white pedestal. Wish I could find a picture.
posted by fungible at 1:27 PM on December 2, 2004

In my head I guess I agree with LairBob and ChasFile; the work is important for all the reasons they said. In my heart, I hate it and Duchamp and I hate him even more every time I go to a gallery and see another urinal or similar object fobbed off as art by some "artist."
posted by caddis at 2:04 PM on December 2, 2004

I too am surprised by the omission of Klimt (although I suspect a certain snobbery against Secession/Art Nouveau/etc. as being "merely" decorative) as well as Malevich and/or Lissitzky (I mean, come on: where does Minimalism come from, if not Suprematism?). And Matisse's Red Studio, but not The Dance? Quoi?
posted by scody at 2:38 PM on December 2, 2004

Another Duchamp "art work" was a snow shovel he hung on a wall. The shovel was lost while being transferred to the Yale art museum. No problem; Yale sent one of their maintenance guys out to the hardware store to buy another shovel.

As for me, I prefer art that demands a high degree of patient craft deveolped through years of suffering and hard work. But what do I know?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2004

Card Cheat and caddis, I think you're both totally right. So much of modern art is basically egotistic posturing..."I'm a friggin' artist, and I'll damn well prove it by making someone pay $50,000 for this wrench that's been taped to a lightbulb!"

The real penalty, I think, has been how his gesture has lowered the technical threshold for what's broadly considered art. Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that it's just innate talent separates artists from the general masses. I do think, though, that things like effort, attention, care and discipline are all important, and are an essential part of what I'd consider art, myself. I could care less whether the draftsmanship is perfect, or the fabrication is seamless, but I _do_ care that the creator had an interesting, thoughtful idea, and took time and care to translate it into reality. At the same time that he re-defined the boundaries, Duchamp also gave a lot of "artists" an excuse for slapdash, lazy work.

Finally, fungible, you're also right that Duchamp was a wag. The choice of a urinal, the "R. Mutt" signature, were all indications that he didn't take himself _too_ seriously. Nevertheless, those weren't the reasons this was deemed such an influential work of art (maybe unfortunately). I was just trying to articulate why this work would have been chosen first, for folks who were scratching their heads.
posted by LairBob at 2:58 PM on December 2, 2004

It's the context that is not being discussed here. Duchamp was living in a world that we would not recognize where we were seeing mass-produced objects for the first time. The Urinal was something not hand crafted by an artisan as it would have been a generation ago but by a nameless faceless entity, much like everything you probably own today. Just who did design the car you love so much, or your PDA or your shoes...

Duchamp (possibly) was asking us to stop for a second and think that the objects we are surrounded with should always be thought of art and removing it from IT'S context was the best way to go about this. He also exhibited the piece anonymously so not to let his fame influence how the piece was regarded and caused an uproar. Women were known to literally faint at the site of it on exhibition. I don't even want to imagine would it would take to get that reaction now.
posted by monkeyboy_socal at 3:24 PM on December 2, 2004

posted by Satapher at 3:28 PM on December 2, 2004

why cant we be happy with portraits for the rest of eternity!? WHY IS THERE SO MUCH CHANGE OH GOD GET ME OUT OF HERE
posted by Satapher at 3:35 PM on December 2, 2004

I have a very subjective standard which I like to imagine has some objective basis. It's some sort of combination of "meaninfulness" and "authenticity". If those are there, and particularly if there's also something new or unique or original, then to my mind it's art. This is true for all art forms for me.

Granted, I very much disagree with the contemporary "anything can be art" and "art is completely in the eye of the beholder" viewpoint. For one thing, I believe that from an epistemological point of view, if "art" is something it must be distinct from things it is not, particularly everything. So, for that reason, I believe that intrinsic to the very nature of "art" is the notion of constraints or limits. Usually these take the form of certain kind of technical constraints, but they can be other things. An artist is saying something within the context of some structure that is essentially predefined. Otherwise, it's And I experience that on my own just fine, thank you.

With that aesthetic, I've come to believe that Duchamp and the dadaists, especially, were really and truly creating "art" when to all appearances (and even their own intentions!...which is the true beauty of it) they were not, they were creating anti-art, disputing the very idea of "art". Doing so, as they did it, in the context of when and where they did it, meets all my personal criteria for "art" in a way that the works of many people who followed them have not.

People (more naive people, shall we say, or just regular people) talk a lot about technical ability, especially in the graphic arts, and see it as the litmus test of "art". But, you know, most of these same people are perfectly willing to listen to contemporary popular music and judge its "worth", its artistic merit, on a basis that is more than just technical ability. Indeed, many people (perhaps not most) are easily able to tell the difference between a hollow-technical-ability-forgettable-piece-of-pop-music crap and a great freakin' song that's not so technically accomplished. Well, just so with the graphic arts. Best, in my personal opinion, is great talent coupled with great technical ability. But if I can't have both, I'll prefer talent and no technical abiltiy to technical ability and no talent. Not for the least reason that talent is much more rare than technical mastery.

So, you know, I think in a certain context a urinal very much can be "art". But that doesn't mean that any urinal can be art, or that anything can be art, or that anyone can be a good artist, or that anyone's opinion of what "art" is as good as anyone else's. Art is something, I think there is an objective basis to it, as elusive and controversial as it is.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:02 PM on December 2, 2004

I think Klimt may have been left off for exactly the reasons you describe: his heavily stylized pieces, while remarkable, didn't influence art in the 20th century the way Duchamp and Picasso did. Notice too that Dadaists, Mexican muralist, and other somewhat hermetic schools are left off. However there is certainly an implicit "under-the-rugging" in this list, I agree. Without, for instance, Gaugin and primitivism, there would be no cubism (Picasso was heavily influenced by African masks) but we don't really like to celebrate the somewhat racist achievements of primitivism any more.

And since this debate seems to clearly rest on influence rather than achievement, let me therefore submit Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamps first major shake-up, which at the Armory show in 1913 woke America up to abstract art, which in turn would create the environment that would produce the Pollocks and the de Koonings and the rest of the New York abstract experssionists.

In other words, I think the problem with this list is that it confuses stylistic influence with asthetic influence. In that regard, I believe Picasso and Matisse belong on one list for the revolutions in style they precipitated, while Duchamp and Warhol belong on another for the revolutions in (politics? philosophy?) asthetic perception (changing the way we see or think about art) they brought about.
posted by ChasFile at 4:36 PM on December 2, 2004

But I disagree. Nude Descending a Staircase is my very favorite painting, and I love my framed print of it, cheesy though it may be. There's something quite astonishing happening in that painting that, to my eye, is deeply artistically accomplished. I don't know enough about painting to evaluate its technical merit, but I believe that I'm seeing something in that painting that I would never have seen otherwise and there's great merit in there that goes far beyond the social context within which the painting was painted and presented.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:58 PM on December 2, 2004

I'd always heard Duchamp set out to show there was no meaning in art, so he made the bicycle wheel. People found a certain "rhythm" in it. Next he tried the urinal. People found meaning even in that. He gave up.
Oddly, now I live on Duchamp Road, and I'm always telling people, "Like Marcel Duchamp...?" Blank looks.
posted by atchafalaya at 5:57 PM on December 2, 2004

What he said.

In my opinion: ART IS ANYTHING A PERSON IS WILLING TO CLAIM IS ART, and to deprive them of that right is eeeevil. It's like what Stalin did. Shame on youuuu.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:07 PM on December 2, 2004

Its interesting that Dali's "Persistence of Memory" was not included, one of the most recognizable images of Modernism from one of the most popular of movements. Dali was so popular that perhaps it's perceived as worn out. Duchamp opened up great frontiers (for good or for worse) by liberating concept/context, but Dali completely liberated photo-real imagery, which is so resonant with our day to day landscape. I would have thought Dali on there somewhere. Am I out of touch?
posted by JenSpiral at 6:18 PM on December 2, 2004

"ART IS ANYTHING A PERSON IS WILLING TO CLAIM IS ART, and to deprive them of that right is eeeevil."

Pshaw. I really, really, really disagree with this point-of-view. And, as my favorite movement is dadaism, it's not as if I'm in favor of some stifling technical definition of "art". Not at all.

But if you accept that art is nothing more than, well, anything anyone says is art, then you're already three-quarters of the way to the rationale behind socialist realism. Because, then, in the grand scheme of things, if it's all so terribly subjective then why not sieze upon the one thing that is arguably objective: social utility. And then art becomes nothing more than another form of politics which, I strongly believe, is exactly what's wrong with contemporary conceptual art. A contemporary artist sees themselves as an "artist" and that the purpose of art is to be political. Note that the dadaists believed that the purpose of dadaism was to be political in the form of demolishing the concept of "art" itself. It's the inverse of the contemporary ethic, not the same thing at all.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:24 PM on December 2, 2004

Another Duchamp "art work" was a snow shovel he hung on a wall. The shovel was lost while being transferred to the Yale art museum. No problem; Yale sent one of their maintenance guys out to the hardware store to buy another shovel.

The interesting part about a number of Duchamp's so-called readymades is that a close (fairly recent) inspection revealed that he actually made a number of them himself, then claimed that they were "readymade." In fact, a number of them turned out to be entirely non-functional (I recall that the coathooks specifically were unsuited to hanging coats). I have a photocopy of the article, but since my filing cabinet is totally disorganized I can't find it quickly. I'll look around later if I get the chance.
posted by j.edwards at 6:29 PM on December 2, 2004


...ahh, I feel much better now.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:51 PM on December 2, 2004

Saying everything is art is logically equivalent to saying everything is everything, which though true doesn't really add anything to the field of aesthetics. What I think most people who utter such phrases intend is something more along the lines of 'We should treat all things with the same reverence we do art' or 'We must learn to see the beauty in all things' etc. Which are all much more interesting statements than simply dicatating that everything is art. In order for art to be truly destroyed as the dadaists intended there are three requisites: You need to remove the technical craft of art leaving the field open to all. Secondly you need to remove the meaning and intention of art, this can be done by having someone else fabricate the actual piece. But lastly and most importantly you need to stop calling yourself an artist. As long as you are placing pieces in museums and fulfilling the other expectations of artistic behavior you are supporting the institution of art as apart from the world. As long as there are artists art will persist no matter how hollow. But the successors of Duchamp have no intention of destroying art. They are perfectly content to fulfill the first two requisites but to resist the lofty mantel of artist would be too much, even Duchamp went around asserting his artistic lineage by acting like an artist. It strikes me as tremendous hypocrisy to claim to crusade against art while reaping its rewards.
posted by Endymion at 6:53 PM on December 2, 2004

Ethereal Bligh: Note that the dadaists believed that the purpose of dadaism was to be political in the form of demolishing the concept of "art" itself. It's the inverse of the contemporary ethic, not the same thing at all.

Its a counterintuitive that the attempts at destroying art made by the dadaists and others made artists themselves even further entrenched. By removing a formerly complex system of aesthetics based on criteria such as stylistic ability, originality, artistic voice, emotional resonance, etc. and replacing it with one of "Is anyone claiming it's art" the artists now rules by fiat. Of course this closes the art world to anyone who wants to excel in those prior categories. And they defend their territory fiercely because if they didn't, well I have a snow shovel in my garage and would be happy to sell it for MoMA for 50,000 dollars. So art becomes dependent on celebrity in order to give it worth. For how does one pick between snow shovels. In fact 3 out of 5 people in double blind studies preferred my snow shovel to Duchamp's but whereas mine is not art his has been brushed by the transformative hand of the artist.

posted by Endymion at 7:08 PM on December 2, 2004

I see a tongue-in-cheek aspect to a lot of modern art - especially Duchamp.

One does not need a Ph.D. to 'get' modern art. It's like humor. I'm not sure someone needs to explain why something is funny.

However, for those who like modern art concepts explained [and I guess I do] and if you are interested in things like 'ready made' and 'reverse ready made art' you should read some of the works of Arthur Danto who is art critic for The Nation Magazine.
posted by Rashomon at 7:26 PM on December 2, 2004

First of all, let me just point out the relatively obvious observation that the fact that this work can spur so much discussion, almost a hundred years after the fact, is testament to its influence (if not its quality).

But to get back to the more concrete point about "effort", b1tr0t, I think you're oversimplifying things. For one thing, I really did try pretty hard not to _just_ qualify everything on effort, so I think your "sweatshop" comment is a bit of a cheap shot. More importantly, though, I still do think that the effort an artist puts into the work is an important measure of how important it is to _them_, and therefore automatically becomes a factor (one factor, granted, among many) in how important it is to _me_.

Pushing for sweat for the sake of sweat is definitely conflating martyrdom with artistry. You're right. But saying that it's not relevant at all risks conflating skill with artistry, and there, I think, you're equally wrong. Even someone as innately gifted as Mozart paid a lot of attention to the details of what he created, and often labored over what he created before he considered them finished. I'm not trying to claim that the misery made those things great, but I _do_ think that when you look at the body of his works, while the things he whipped off in an afternoon are all impressive, the works we'd all consider his real "art" are things he devoted a lot more care and attention to.
posted by LairBob at 7:36 PM on December 2, 2004

I've always rather liked Fountain. As art.

Endymion, I didn't see anyone here claiming that "everything is art". What was said was that anything the artist says is art is art, which is a somewhat different thing.

Personally, though I've always thought the question "what is art?" is entirely silly and pointless to begin with. Who cares? A much more interesting question is, "Is it good art or bad art? And why?" Something is claimed to be art. Fine. Is it meaningful? Or provocative? Or beautiful? Or profound? Or original? Or touching? Or important? Or stylish? Or whatever.

If it's enough of those, it's good art to me, whether the artist worked on it for forty years or found it in a department store and scrawled their name on it in twenty minutes. If it's none of those, I couldn't care less, again in either of those situations.

So why on earth would I care if it fits some more or less narrow definition of art?
posted by kyrademon at 7:53 PM on December 2, 2004

I Like America by Joseph Beuys was not a big influence on me, I must admit — I never heard of it before. I've seen most of the other works though, and am a big fan of Duchamp's. Gallery 182 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its secret door, is a great place to spend time admiring his work. (I think I like the marble sugar cubes in the birdcage the best.)

The best thing about the shovel is its title: In Advance of the Broken Arm.

Duchamp was a wag. The choice of a urinal, the "R. Mutt" signature...

His name on the entry form was Richard Mutt. There's been a lot of discussion about what Mutt meant, but I've always heard the whole signature on the Fountain was a pun on armut, the German word for 'poverty.'

(on preview)
the fact that this work can spur so much discussion, almost a hundred years after the fact, is testament to its influence (if not its quality).

An excellent point, LairBob. Whether it was some kind of artistic 'trick' or not, Duchamp is the guy who came up with Readymades first.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:54 PM on December 2, 2004

The most trenchant comment in this entire thread is the first one. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the oeuvre of Mr. C. M. Coolidge, American artistic visionary.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:55 PM on December 2, 2004

its so hard to decide whos points of view youre going to have
posted by Satapher at 8:59 PM on December 2, 2004

kyrademon: Endymion, I didn't see anyone here claiming that "everything is art". What was said was that anything the artist says is art is art, which is a somewhat different thing.

My statement wasn't in response to a specific comment in the thread but rather to a common contention of some modern artists. The implication of readymade art is that anything, and thus everything can be art. In fact, in my role as artist I hereby offer my services to the community where for one day only I will declare anything you desire art. Want your car, your house, your cat, your spouse declared art? Simply ask and I will make it so. I will even send you a personalized email upon request certifying that the object is, in fact, now art. No thanks necessary.

Personally, though I've always thought the question "what is art?" is entirely silly and pointless to begin with. Who cares? A much more interesting question is, "Is it good art or bad art? And why?" Something is claimed to be art. Fine. Is it meaningful? Or provocative? Or beautiful? Or profound? Or original? Or touching? Or important? Or stylish? Or whatever.

There are two versions of the question "Is it good art or bad art?" One is simply "Do I like it?" while the other is "How well does it fulfill the definition of art." It a variation of the second that is used by art museums to select pieces. They ask "Is this a good repesentative piece of a particular school?" which is of course contingent on a conception of what that schools pieces should look like. The first question is redundant because one has the answer before one asks the question. The "And Why" is the basis of aesthetics. It undermines the idea of taking every piece individually because any rationale is going to be larger than a particular piece. Its simply impossible to answer such a question without forming a crude aesthetic theory because any criteria other than simply "becuase" is going to be fungible. For example if I answer the "and why?" question with "because of its vibrant colors" than I have linked the metric of good with the nature of vibrant colors. But these criteria once erected need to be directed towards artistic creations. The question "What is art" is what serves to narrow the field enough to begin talking about specific pieces with some clarity. I can ask "Is it meaningful? Or provocative? Or beautiful? Or profound? Or original? Or touching? Or important? Or stylish?" about the Holocaust and answer yes, yes, no, yes, yes, yes, yes, no without really saying anything about it as art because aesthetic theory isn't really applicable there. A question such as "what is art" is simply a matter of giving boundaries to the questions of aesthetic theory so that a discussion can begin. Furthermore the question isn't some tyrannical imposition from above that serves to oppress artists and force them to fit into a narrow rule. It is created from below. It says, we have here all these things that are called art, what is their unifying principle. However in recent times many people feel that the domain of art has become increasingly broad to the point of diluting the character of art. Art cannot exist apart from nonart, so if something like a urinal is art is it valid any longer to ask the traditional aesthetic questions? Some are content to throw out the questions, other feel it is better to throw out the art. Neither choice is unarguably better. Those of the former mindset want to keep the art no matter how diluted and mediocre it becomes while the latter mindset feels that without the questions there will be no good and bad art and are willing to sacrifice some pieces so that they can maintain a high standard.
posted by Endymion at 9:06 PM on December 2, 2004

So art becomes dependent on celebrity in order to give it worth.

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with potty art. Celebrity is a fine thing in any art form and there has to be at least some spark of talent or something at the core of what creates most celebrities. However, in modern art I think it has overtaken the material.

Frankly, it has been a century since Duchamp pulled his little coup. OK, it was funny and perhaps important then, but please can we move forward (no disrespect to those artists who have, just disrespect to those critics who have not)?
posted by caddis at 10:44 PM on December 2, 2004

I see the point you’re making, Endymion, but I don't completely agree with it.

"Want your car, your house, your cat, your spouse declared art? Simply ask and I will make it so."

That was rather my point. I think your declaring it so DOES make it art, since those objects, by virtue of that declaration, will now be, if only momentarily, contemplated as art objects.

The problem is that, when I say that, people tend to assume I mean that these things become worthwhile art. In general, they don't. My car, for example, is not technically well rendered, nor is the concept of declaring a car art an original and provocative idea anymore, nor has it been placed in a context which makes me think about cars, or society, or oil, or whatever, in any interesting way. I can contemplate it as art, so, for that purpose, it is art – it’s just lousy art.

If anything can be art, the question then becomes not “what is art?”, but “why should I pay attention to this particular artwork?” But this is still is a question, and one that still applies to the concept of what should go in museums, on the radio, on the screen, etc.. It just isn’t limited to them.

“There are two versions of the question ‘Is it good art or bad art?’ One is simply ‘Do I like it?’ while the other is ‘How well does it fulfill the definition of art?’”

Hmm. I tend to disagree. I see “is it good art or bad art” as pretty much a simple yes or no question, although the answer is not always easy to determine. What you’re talking about is the “and why” part of the question, which is not limited to two possibilities but a whole slew of them:

Do I like it? Is it technically proficient? Did it achieve what I perceive to be the artist’s goals? Is it an original idea? Has it influenced other artists? Did it make me think? Etc. etc. etc.

Although I question whether “fulfilling the definition of art” really belongs in there.

Of course, you correctly point out that asking and answering the “and why” question(s) requires the development of some kind of aesthetic – otherwise the questions have no answer and no reason even to be asked. Although this conception of aesthetics can differ from person to person, there are also broad swaths of people with similar ideas, which results in the determination of what is generally considered “good art”.

“I can ask . . . about the Holocaust . . . without really saying anything about it as art because aesthetic theory isn't really applicable there.”

I see your point here. I really do. But why COULDN’T you contemplate the Holocaust as a work of art, if you wanted to? And why wouldn’t you apply aesthetic theory to it if you did?

This doesn’t make art a meaningless concept. It doesn’t make aesthetics a meaningless concept. Nor does it invalidate the work of artists who are attempting to achieve a particular goal with the technical and creative skills at their disposal – that is one of things that frequently separates good art from bad, and important art from uninteresting art. But it does make what art IS a matter of how something is being regarded, rather than how or why it was made.

This isn’t a fine semantic point for me, or something. I’m a professional artist, and also a professional critic (of the type that makes a determination of who gets money for their work, rather than the type that writes reviews.) And I make many judgments on the things that get submitted to me, including whether they’re good or bad, interesting or dull, important or worthless, the kind of art that fits the needs of my particular organization or the kind of art that doesn't. But I would never judge any submission to be “not art”. If someone thinks of it as art, it is art, by the very nature of what art is.

You’ve no doubt noticed that my argument still requires a definition – if art is a matter of how something is regarded, then what is the nature of that “regard”? But you’ve answered it already – it’s the judgment of something on the basis of aesthetic principals. Those principals can be defined narrowly (say, people who only like Dutch Masters), or broadly (say, people who think Campbell’s soup can labels are important), but they can be applied to anything.
posted by kyrademon at 11:19 PM on December 2, 2004

Art: anything the artist says is art.
Artist: anyone who makes art.

Let's try an analogy...

Meal: anything the chef says is a meal.
Chef: anyone who makes meals.

Now, where did I put Sartre's omelet recipe...
posted by bashos_frog at 11:26 PM on December 2, 2004

Point taken, bashos_frog. However, I still stand by what I said, because art lies in the nature of how something is regarded - if it is regarded that way, it is art. Meals, however, lie in the nature of edibility; you can regard something which is not a meal as a meal (as Sartre's omelet recipe proves), but that does not make it a meal. Once you regard something as art, it is art, at least while you're regarding it that way.
posted by kyrademon at 11:38 PM on December 2, 2004

bashos_frog raises an interesting point and I think neatly summarizes how some people define art.

translated art:anything the artist says is (anything the artist says is art.)

But wait theirs more:

anything the artist says is (anything the artist says is (anything the artist says is art.).)

So far it doesn't look good but maybe the definition of artist will shed some light.

translated Artist: anyone who makes (anything the artist says is art.)

But we still are left with an 'artist' which will need to be replaced. Such as process could go on ad infinitum. You will never reach a valid conclusion with such a definition. It's not meaningful to include the word you are defining within the definition.

kyrademon: I can contemplate it as art, so, for that purpose, it is art – it’s just lousy art.

I agree that it is a very fruitful and interesting exercise to apply aesthetics to things normally thought to be outside its purview but I don't necessarily agree that it is the process of aesthetic contemplation that makes something art. I think there is, rather, a symbiotic relationship between what is art and what aesthetics. Neither is completely independent of the other but there are some distinctions. One might contemplate a car biologically but that does that make it is a lifeform merely because one directed a certain cognitive process towards it. Within biology there is a criteria for assessing what is life and what is not, although it has no strict boundaries, which is why I chose it for an example. Though biology has no absolute definition of what constitutes life it still manages to narrow its field to such a level where it may operate with some efficacy. But I fear I am in danger of repeating myself here without clarifying anything so I will conclude by saying that I am intrigued by your idea of art as anything towards which aesthetics criteria have been directed. I'm not sure its valid but if it were it would simply aesthetics immensely.

Postscript: Applying the guiding principles from one domain to another is nothing new and can be seen in scientists discussing religion, literary theorists and semioticians talking about 'texts' (ie everything), physicists talking about chemistry, logicians talking about math the list goes on and on. In many cases this can provide intriguing insights but we have demarcations between the disciplines for a reason, and that is to narrow the vastness of existence into a small enough confine to begin talking about it coherently. Many people wonder if art has not strayed from its domain and been unable to find its way back.
posted by Endymion at 5:23 AM on December 3, 2004

What you say is very valid, Endymion - definitions of things need to have some restrictions on what they can apply to, or they cease to be useful. The problem is, a definition of art calls for one broad enough to include, well, Duchamp's Fountain, for example, while still being useful, since Fountain is widely regarded as being art. That's why I tend to think of it as a mode of judging an object on certain grounds rather than an inherent value in the object itself.

Of course, there is a way to define art that broadly in a different way which includes Fountain while leaving out, say, my car. That would be, art is that which its creator *intends* to be judged on aesthetic grounds. By that light, for example, a bird on a branch would not be art, but an exact reproduction of that bird on a branch would be, no matter how close they were to each other and even if the reaction to both were the same - which, to be fair, seems to be what a lot of people mean when they say "art".

This also leaves us with, possibly, a more useful definition of artist - someone who creates things intended to be judged on aesthetic grounds.

I've been a little hesitant to include the intention aspect along with the regard aspect since I also like to listen to, say, the static between radio channels. But maybe that isn't art unless until someone deliberately isolates it - I could believe that.

Would the addition of creator intention to audience regard make the whole thing a little less circular and a little more defined for you?
posted by kyrademon at 6:55 AM on December 3, 2004

I just want to say [this thread has taken a really interesting direction].
posted by Vidiot at 7:50 AM on December 3, 2004

This also leaves us with, possibly, a more useful definition of artist - someone who creates things intended to be judged on aesthetic grounds.
Would the addition of creator intention to audience regard make the whole thing a little less circular and a little more defined for you?

It's certainly a fascinating contention, it broadens art into philosophy, making artists those who concertize their ideas into a diad of content and form. It certainly collapses the roles of aesthetician and artist into one person. It does, unfortunately, open up just as many problems as it solves. Problems of authorial intention, imperfect access to the inner thoughts of the artists, whether simply succeeding in mere intent is art, and whether the artist can constitute his own audience and judge or requires an external one. But the strongest objection would be that if such a definition were true and an artist were someone who places an object open to the inquiry of aesthetics, to what questions shall he be held? Simply put a artist has an internal private language of aesthetic criteria. Certainly it would be improper to judge an impressionist by the standards or a cubist because each has a different ideal or sensibility and it is the job of a critic to judge a piece on its own merits. Previously this was not much of a problem because as a school gained prominence, the private language of the artist, which Wittgenstein thought impossible, as language exists only in relation to others, would become public and coherent enough to eventually judge a work. However, in the case of something such as readymade art the artist has no private language because he hasn't really judged his piece to fulfill the standards and another identical piece not. The artist has made the object the subject of aesthetic questions but discarded the questions. He hasn't expressed himself because he hasn't differentiated or said anything about his piece. So even if a piece were good and significant to the audience it is not so to the artist. My print or a famous piece may be art but the copier of it is not an artist. Has an artist expressed himself if he has not made his private language public? And thus we return to the question with which we began which is can there be art without rules governing art. Lamentably the inchoate notions of art will have to remain mysterious for another day but let no one say we didn't try.
posted by Endymion at 7:55 AM on December 3, 2004

. . . and certainly one of the major complaints of critics against the most cutting-edge of art is that, when the private artistic vocabulary of the creator is far enough from that of the presumed audience, then who is the art intended for and is it even worthwhile? And it's also exactly the kind of disconnect which has led some people to declare that they have no understanding of certain kinds of art, to decide that certain works aren't art at all, or even to suspect that some things are nothing more than a massive joke at the expense of the audience (which, to be fair, some pieces may in fact be, although less than many would believe.)

Still, though, I think the very real problems you point out are not questions of "What is art?", but rather questions of "How can we judge the merits of a particular work?", which is a very different question. What the artist was trying to do, whether or not that was accomplished, and whether or not the attempt was worthwhile at all are important and valid questions in determining those merits. And the artist's relation to a certain aesthetic school, culture, or period, their skill in adhering to any technical rules they thought valid, and whether the piece is a unique work or a derivative copy are all important contextual pieces which help determine that judgment.

Plenty of people object to the work of the appropriators and copiers (Duchamp, Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc.) on the grounds that it's uninteresting, uncreative, says nothing, or what have you. Frankly, I dislike a lot of Lichtenstein for just that reason, since I think he frequently made a living making copies of artists who were better than himself. It's fair to judge them as bad art for that reason, if you like. But I think if they are judged as not being art in the first place, then the definition is too narrow.

The artistic language of the readymades *has* slowly but surely become a part of the recognized language of mainstream art, just as much as Impressionism or Surrealism. Collage art; sampled music pieces; found art - common objects placed in new contexts, juxtaposed in different ways. What is "Fountain" but that concept in its earliest inception, stripped down to its basic element - an object considered as art solely because it is in a context that asks you to consider it as art?
posted by kyrademon at 11:20 AM on December 3, 2004

This guy has what art is all figured out..."paintings of landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and figures that you can look at and enjoy," preferably by his wife.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:38 AM on December 3, 2004

"Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self." - Jean-Luc Godard
Maybe the same could be said regarding our thinking about art?
posted by JenSpiral at 12:42 PM on December 3, 2004

Waitasec...Thomas Kinkade didn't make the Top Ten?
posted by Vidiot at 5:05 PM on December 3, 2004

The Card Cheat: Y'know, even though Yves Klein is my favorite artist of the 20th century, with Duchamp hot on his heels, I really liked this painting of shirts by Judith Kudlow. Also, for someone who says of paintings: "They leave one positive and feeling optimistic" to then go an recommend the work of Andrea Smith beggars belief. Seriously, I say this without sarcasm, never have I looked at a bundle of asparagus with such dread.
posted by Kattullus at 9:45 AM on December 4, 2004

« Older Unmanned aerial photography sentinel bot thingy   |   Saving the world, one stapler at a time. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments